When a dragon flies over a city, or a town, those living below have described the sound as like a drum beat, a thumping of the air as the massive wings of the draconic creatures swoop over their prey. The sun gets blotted out by the massive, sweeping body of the beast- like an eclipse moving in and out of the sun's path. For those closest to the dragon's swoops to ensnare people or animals, it was a blast of force nearly capable of knocking a fully-grown man to the ground.
Above the desert fortress of Amkethran, there were three such beasts circling the walls and structures, descending upon the defenders of the city- for them it was as if there was a gale hurricane that tossed them to and fro. For every armored defender, every mercenary and soldier defending the city, they found themselves barely able to stand- only the monks of the city had the necessary balance to withstand the wind buffets of the great beasts.
In the center tower of the fortress, Balthazar clenched his fists, watching as Abazigal and his kin began their assault in earnest, darting in and out, trying to stay out of range of the ballistae and catapults that the fortress had for defense. Of course the city was prepared for an assault by Abazigal- it had been one of the first things Balthazar had done upon joining the Five and discovering just who he had 'allied' himself with.
Still, the defenses would not last forever. Not against a force of this size- the drakes were more than capable of slipping past the large, stationary defenses and bringing them down from within the city- once they were gone, Abazigal and the other two dragons would have no troubles reducing the city to ash. He resisted the urge to abandon his post at the center of the city, guarded by four ballistae and six catapults- it was the most defended portion of the city, with a half dozen monks and soldiers guarding each of the defenses- all wisdom pointed to remaining in the midst of it all, avoiding a quick and mindless death at the hands of a random piece of debris hurtling to the ground, or maybe a fireball launched from a dragon's mouth that he did not see in time.
And yet… the monk exhaled sharply, his eyes never ceasing to track the figures of the great beasts circling his fortress. So much for all his and Mellissan's plans- the wards of Gorion were supposed to kill the rest of the Five, then be killed by him. Or perhaps the Five would team up to destroy Greywulf and Imoen before turning on one another. This fighting between them- he wasn't ready, not yet. Not that he had much choice any more.
A blast of electricity, a lightning bolt arcing through the sky from the jaws of Abazigal struck a mud-brick hut in the villagers' settlements below, setting it ablaze as the screams of those cowering inside echoed faintly in the air. Balthazar felt his chest tighten, felt the anger that he'd worked so long to suppress rising to the surface. The others of the Five were right about one thing, at least. To murder was a great thrill- to murder a sibling, another Bhaalspawn- that was the throes of ecstasy. Abazigal was trying to lure him out… and by the gods, it was taking all of Balthazar's will to avoid obliging him. Perhaps he could get the half-dragon to descend, to face him in single combat? No… that would have worked on Yaga-Shura perhaps, but not Abazigal. The blue dragon was far too self-absorbed to risk himself like that. He would make use of every advantage he possessed to attain godhood… though perhaps that was the weakness he needed to exploit. If they wanted to make the dragon back off- they'd need to persuade Abazigal they'd set him on a field of battle he was unprepared for- a show of overwhelming force, real or not, that could get the dragon to imagine defeat lay in wait. The trick would be coming up with something convincing enough when in fact, no such solution existed.
Perhaps… perhaps not necessarily changing the conditions of the battlefield, but the battlefield itself? Yes… yes, that might work. A plan began forming in Balthazar's mind- and the means to enacting that plan followed soon after. Balthazar turned from the raised tower window where he'd been watching the devastation of his fortress, turning on his heel to descend the spire. Two monks guarded the stairwell as he reached the bottom of the tower, both snapping to attention as he arrived. "Send word to the smugglers den in the mountain caverns on the edge of the city." Balthazar commanded. "We will be setting a trap for the dragons within their little hiding holes- if the smugglers wish to keep their lives, they will accommodate our wishes."
Both monks nodded and departed to carry out their masters' wishes- Balthazar let himself smirk ever so slightly as he thought of the little smugglers and thieves who made their hideout within the emptied tunnels of the mountainside, thinking that their activities were going unnoticed by him- he allowed their continued existence, completely aware of everything they did- had they ever crossed the line beyond smuggling or burglary he would have had them all killed, but so far they'd been little more than pests. Pests who would now finally serve a purpose, even if it only meant using their homes for a dragon slaying ground…
The dark forest, at first nothing but thick pine and oak trees had eventually grown to more than simple trees but thick underbrush and growth that obscured most of the path before him- Solaufein grimaced at the memory of his time near the Shadow Lord's temple, imagining the vines and branches coming to life before them, reach out to ensnare and surround the interlopers.
While they may not have had to deal with living foliage, infected with shadow magic, there were still drow and duergar forces flooding upwards, pouring out onto the surface world- or perhaps trickling out would be a more apt description now. The beholder that had been freed from Egeissag's control was true to his word- it had led the group past the open forest and the war between Tombelthen's forces and the dark elves, finally into the dark undergrowth, the deep places in the middle of the wood. The beholder spun on his own miniature floating orbit, snapping its jaws and licking the brown, puffy flesh that would possibly pass for lips. Several of the eye-stalks bounced backward as if pointing at the area behind him- Solaufein frowned as he noted a structure like a troll mound, composed of rock and moss and vine, though the entry was large enough to accommodate several soldiers at once. This deep in the wood, it was no wonder the entryway to Sendai's enclave had remained hidden for so long.
"There… the entryway to the little darkling hole." It coughed, finally turning to eye the four adventurers with disgust. "May you spill much blood before you find your end below."
The beholder spat an incantation before vanishing into a portal of light- had there been more troops still exiting the enclave, it might have given their position away, taking cover behind a massive overturned log that lay opposite the enclave entrance. "Charming creature, wouldn't you say?" Haer'Dalis quipped, peeking over the top of their cover, gazing at the enclave entrance. "What do you think, my fellow travelers? Shall we take our chances in the darkness below? If our prey truly lurks below in the deep, we have little choice, I think."
"Perhaps… though we would do well to take some care before charging blindly into the earth's depths." Sarevok hefted the Sword of Chaos, glowing yellow eyes peering into the low light as if they could pierce the darkness with their own unsettling power. "Imoen… your thoughts?"
Imoen did not answer right away- Solaufein glanced sharply at her, noting her clenched fists, eyes shut tightly as though she was battling within herself for control. Solaufein reached out, taking hold of one wrist- just as quickly, a palm from Sarevok slapped his own hand away. The drow glared at the Deathbringer, a smile crossing Sarevok's face as he glanced back at Imoen's struggling features. "Let her be, drow. She seeks to find her own path, her own balance of power with the taint. I am… interested in seeing what my little sister will finally become when the taint has its way with her."
"That *isn't* going to happen." Solaufein growled, a dark rumble that would make lesser men back off in a moment- Sarevok was not to be counted among those with weak wills or minds. Solaufein's voice went to an even darker place, little more than a guttural tone, teeth bared in a feral, masculine challenge, a contest of alpha males erupting between the two warriors. "Stay out of my way, Sarevok."
"What is that I hear in your voice, elf? Concern for Imoen's safety, or something more? Yes… I see it in your crimson eyes even now." Sarevok backed away, standing fully to tower over the crouched drow as he knelt beside Imoen's hunched form. "You look at her with the same gaze Tamoko gave to me when I prepared for my own ascension… fear of what I was becoming, of the path I was taking her upon. Hnh… I would pity you, were I capable of it. Those who care about the Children find nothing but suffering on that road. It is inevitable… but try to delay your own failure if you must."
Solaufein watched with suspicion as Sarevok walked away, striding toward the entry to Sendai's enclave, keeping his sword at guard- the Deathbringer paused outside the entrance, lying in wait for any emerging warriors, a brutal death in the dark for those who would come late to the fight. Haer'Dalis watched the big man with interest, shaking his head in delight. "What a story our dark hunting hound makes, does he not? A lover killed due to his own lust for power, yet to give up that quest would mean denying his entire life's purpose. And to side by those who brought his original downfall, those who may yet achieve what he sought but by a kinder means… a more brilliant tragedy I have never heard. I shall watch our path by his side whilst you tend to our tender wildflower- though she has been growing thorns as of late, I think."
Solaufein swore, cursing the both of them as he watched Imoen's trembling form a few moments longer, finally grasping one of her hands and wondering if she had even been listening to them or if she'd been trapped in her own Bhaal-tainted universe- Imoen's eyes flashed open, warping black for a moment before settling back to their normal color. She gasped for air, clutching at her chest as she scrambled from Solaufein. "Don't… don't touch me-"
Her words cut the elf, but he ignored it for a time, trying to reach her- hoping she was still in there, somewhere beneath the taint fueled madness that was growing in her mind. "Imoen, please… I want to help you. What can I do- simply tell me and I will do my utmost, but I must know-"
"Know? What do you know? What can you know?" Imoen laughed, glaring wickedly at Solaufein from a seated position, looking at him less like an imp and more like a devil as she rocked back and forth. "I'm feeling just fine, thanks… better'n ever, in fact! That a problem for you, tough guy?"
Solaufein stood up, trying to keep a stone look on his face, trying not to show how much seeing her like this was paining him- it was an expression he'd learned to fake well back in his time in Ust Natha. "Yes… it is. You have opened yourself to the darkness, traded reason for madness. I would not see you become a slave to the taint within you, but master it."
"Is that so? You think it's that simple huh, just a quick flip and I can turn it off and on?" Imoen spat, though her voice wavered as she spoke, tucking her feet up and standing as she circled the dark elf. "And what if I don't want to? I feel just fine, thank you very much. All my life I've been living in Greywulf's shadow, the little nobody behind the curtain, ignored and abandoned. Heh- if not for Irenicus I'd probably still be taking a backseat during this whole mess."
"You don't mean that…" Solaufein began, only to get cut off by the increasingly erratic girl. She raised a finger with rage in her eyes, only to lower it, shaking her head as though trying to deny something else within her- Imoen spat, spinning on her heel before planting her feet, her back to the drow elf. Solaufein watched her struggle for control again, trying to find the right words to say. "Whatever you need me to do, I shall not deny you. I will go to the ends of Faerun before I see you follow the same path as Phaere… do not let this darkness strip all your innocence from you, please-"
"Innocent? That how you think of me? Heh." Imoen chuckled bitterly, looking back at Solaufein with dark, ebony eyes. "You don't know the thoughts percolating around in my little head…" the glimmer of Imoen's short sword illuminated the night as she rapidly closed the distance between them letting the tip of it rest against his armored breastplate.
"I know... you do not want this." Solaufein murmured, standing stock still as she leaned in, her arm muscles tightening as though preparing to shove the blade deep into his chest-Imoen swung the blade down and back into the sheath on her hip as her other arm yanked Solaufein's head down to meet hers, their lips connecting fiercely.
Imoen shoved the surprised drow off after a moment, turning on her heel to head towards the descent into Sendai's enclave, only pausing a brief moment to toss behind her, "You have no idea what I want. Let's get moving."
Solaufein watched Imoen's form as she disappeared into the darkness of the enclave entrance, followed by the others- he took up the rear, trying to clear his mind, hoping Imoen would be able to do the same when battle came upon them. Who had he just spoken with? Was that truly Imoen speaking a moment ago, or the taint through her? Some combination of both, more than likely- but it mattered little, in the end. She'd been right- he had no idea what she wanted. Power, to be rid of the taint… her feelings could be changing by the second, depending on who exactly was in charge inside that pink-haired head. What he wanted though… that was quite clear. He wanted the girl he'd known back in Ust Natha, in Suldenesselar back. He wanted to see that smile, that joy in her face back. He'd been in her light for too long- it drove some of the shadows he lived in away, and it was too much, too addictive for him to give her up now.
Haer'Dalis spared a glance behind to make sure Solaufein was keeping up as they descended into Sendai's lair- he was there, in body, if not spirit. Something of a problem, should they encounter their main foe right away. The big man would need some time to clear his head, reorder his thoughts. Not that it would take him too long- he was well versed in the arena of battle and knew what it would take to survive this coming fight- though it appeared he was much less comfortable in the matters of the heart. Oh yes, he could see the obvious regard that Solaufein held for Imoen… even if the two of them were much more oblivious. Perhaps oblivious was the wrong word- more unwilling to openly acknowledge it, rather. A more clunky way to describe it, but perhaps more fitting.
The glint of torches lining the tunnel heading downward allowed them to keep their footing through the descent, but it was hardly an easy path to walk- rocks and dirt clods tumbled down with each step they took, and there was no guarantee an off-placed foot would not send one of their company sliding to the bottom in a most unpleasant and- depending on what awaited at the bottom- unhealthy manner. Still, none of them took that impromptu shortcut to the base; each found their own footing, however treacherous, to the base of the path. It opened from a narrow corridor fit to funnel invading foot soldiers or armies into what almost looked like an arena- pillars surrounding the circular chamber, magically lit torches along all sides to give the entire area a flickering glow, as bright as the noonday sun with flame to guide their eyes.
And yet… something was not right. It was so obvious to one such as he, a planeswalker, one who had braved the gates between universes, one who had looked upon the gates of the city Sigil, who had taken up a residence in the fabric between the planes of existence. The planescape left a… mark, on those who had traversed it for any length. Those who knew how to see or feel such a mark would recognize Haer'Dalis immediately for a tiefling, one of outer-planar blood. Just as they could recognize him, feel his presence… so could the bard feel that of something… other, nearby.
Haer'Dalis unsheathed Chaos and Entropy without a word, drawing glances from the others as he stepped slowly, deliberately out into the midst of the chamber, his own breaths coming quicker, fainter, barely there at all for fear of deafening his senses- before any of the three he traveled beside could ask him what was the matter, the situation resolved itself quite handily. A pillar of earth erupted from the dirt and stone beneath each of their feet, raising them high and quick to the stalactite covered ceiling, a quick death, if not necessarily painless.
The tiefling was the most prepared, he leapt from the rising pillar of sod and rolled to a halt on the solid ground- if it could be considered solid when manipulated so easily- and spat a quick trigger word, allowing his limited spellcraft to take shape in a basic form, several Magic Missiles peppering the pillar closest by. The bullets of energy exploded the base of the pillar, allowing it to collapse and sending Sarevok plummeting to the ground in a metallic clatter of armor as the Deathbringer grunted in pain with the sudden landing. There had only been time to save one other- Haer'Dalis gaze snapped upwards, wondering if Imoen and Solaufein had been quite so fortunate or quick, though as it turned out, Solaufein was more than ready. Years of enduring assassination attempts by House Despana had honed the drow's reflexes beyond them all- he had leapt from the pillar as soon as it had begun rising skyward, coming up in a roll with his blade at guard. Imoen had been less fortunate- though her magics were not abandoned. She was at the top of the pillar near the ceiling, a blue globe of magic surrounding her that ground against the ceiling as the earth itself attempted to end her life. Her eyes were wide, the woman inside the magic shaking with the effort of protecting herself- if she let the magic go, there was no way she'd have the time to rescue herself or get off the pillar of earth. Getting to her would be nearly impossible with how high she stood above the others, encased in protective energy- but perhaps there was a way after all. Solaufein shouted to the sorceress, a wild plan taking place in his mind. "Imoen! You must trust me- when I give the word, let your magics collapse!"
Imoen's neck snapped around to look at the elf- her eyes were a roiling boil of black and white- could she even hear him? Was she even there? No time to wonder. Solaufein prayed she'd listen- he grasped the jade teleportation stone tied to his belt, focused his will, and shouted. "Now!"
A portal of white energy blazed to life inside Imoen's bubble, the drow leaping out of it and veritably tackling her as she let her spell expire- the physical shielding around them vanished, allowing the pillar of earth to erupt upwards as Solaufein's leap took them off the pillar entirely, tumbling to the ground in a painful landing, but better than being crushed and impaled.
No time for small talk or congratulatory banter- the entire group got to their feet, assuming a defensive posture, back to back, slowly turning as the world seemed to fade in and out, light dimming as the entire earth broke and groaned around them- Rock and stone, moss and dirt all seemed to explode from their feet, sweeping up to collect in their midst, scattering their formation as a great beast, humanoid in shape but composed entirely of the elements itself took form. Great glowing eyes were recessed behind slate eye sockets, and the massive arms were so long they dragged obsidian bladed knuckles on the dirt itself- the creature bellowed, not from a mouth or voice but from the earth around them- "You have trespassed upon the realm of Ogremoch, mortals. Submit."
"Alas, I take direction quite poorly." Haer'Dalis quipped, taking a running start to dive between the behemoth's legs, letting both of his blades sweep out to slice through the stone and rock with their enchanted edges.
The others needed little cajoling or encouragement- Sarevok roared in defiance as his eyes glowed ever brighter with the fury of battle upon him- he brought the Blade of Chaos in an arc traveling from behind his hip all the way across the top of his body and into the approaching fist that was moving towards him- steel met stone and exploded off one another as sparks flew from the impact.
Solaufein took a much more subtle approach- the drow elf darted forward while keeping his body low, moving around the edge of the elemental prince, thinking to take the creature from behind- as he reached the blind side of Ogremoch, two empty eye sockets and a gaping mouth of mud formed upon its torso, right in front of Solaufein's startled gaze, his sword slowing just barely at the sudden appearance. "You cannot take me by surprise, mortal. I see all. I am the earth itself-"
Solaufein recovered from the shock quickly- he jammed the two-handed blade he carried deep into the newly formed face, twisting it once before yanking it out in a trail of mud and dust. The lack of blood was… disconcerting. He took a step back, as if trying to decide where to strike next at the gargantuan creature, but there was little time for such contemplation. Vines erupted from the mangled eye sockets of the face he'd impaled, leeching onto his wrists and pulling him towards the Earth elemental as if to draw him into its very core.
As it turned out, that was not too far from the truth- Solaufein struggled mightily, but the strength of his arms and legs was of little use against the strength of the earth itself- he spat in alarm at the taste of dirt flooding his mouth as he planted onto the side of Ogremoch, slowly fading under the surface of the beast- just before the drow warrior disappeared beneath it completely, a blast of power sent several chunks of the earth elemental's side flying, revealing a measure of Solaufein's person, the drow elf half-freed. Imoen strode deliberately toward the elf, hand outstretched as she commanded arcane powers with singular purpose- tear Ogremoch apart. One more blast, then another, then another. Solaufein slipped to the ground, immediately rolling away in an attempt to get his bearings as Imoen continued her assault.
The elemental prince of earth groaned with the attacks to its body- it swung the massive bulk of its body in a semi-circle, large obsidian fists hurtling through the air to knock a man's upper half from its lower- Sarevok saw the oncoming attack and dropped to the ground, barely escaping the sweeping blow while Imoen launched herself into the air, just high enough to get her feet onto the arcing fist and using it as yet another springboard. Her form flipped high into the air, Imoen drew her short sword with one hand while chanting and flexing an open palm. Lightning blazed in her hand as she brought it down onto Ogremoch's head, splitting the entire creature's body with power. The sword in her other hand pierced the crackling, burnt hole she'd made with the lightning bolt- letting her momentum carry her downward, Imoen slid from the creature's head to the floor, dragging her sword with her until she came off in a roll, sliding the short sword back into her sheath as she landed, preparing to cast with both hands again.
Another howl of… pain? Discomfort? Anger? It mattered little, for despite Imoen's valiant efforts, the creature barely seemed fazed with her strikes. Another set of arms burst from Ogremoch's torso, stretching across the room to ensnare Imoen in its grasp- the thief-mage's eyes widened as she realized how quickly this could go poorly- a simple squeeze by the elemental prince and her entire torso would be reduced to jelly. Too much time to get her spells moving with both hands pinned to her waist… the sword of the Deathbringer sang through the air and through Ogremoch's wrist, letting Imoen tumble to the ground as the rock and dirt surrounding her fell apart as nothing more than clods and pebbles. "You cannot die yet, little sister." Sarevok growled, pulling Imoen back to her feet, the siblings exchanging a glare. "If Greywulf will not propel me to the power I seek, perhaps you will…"
His words were not quite the empty taunts they might once have been- but Imoen was in no place to really question their meaning or effect on herself. Another time perhaps- a time when their lives weren't in immediate peril by the living embodiment of the earth- Imoen grimaced, remembering the pain she'd endured when fleeing from Imix, Prince of Fire, within Yaga-Shura's mountain temple. The only way she'd escaped his wrath was a mountain-sized Implosion spell courtesy of Jaheira… not exactly an option right now. Her magic had barely made a dent on the beast- the wounds they'd dealt it filled and reformed seconds after they struck. It was all too slow, not fast enough. Imoen pushed another portion of her spirit into the formation of a Horrid Wilting, doubling over with the sudden draining of her life force- she leapt backward to avoid another seeking tendril of thorny vines, hurling the brown skull at Ogremoch's massive bulk as she descended to a rocky slide.
The 'whumph' of the Horrid Wilting drew Haer'Dalis' attention as he saw the vines reaching for Imoen wither and die, their bases caught in the blast of death magic. Another good salvo, but the play was far from done. Haer'Dalis flipped the grip on both of his short swords, crossed them in front of his face and ran towards Ogremoch's whirling body, drawing an X with them as he reached the section of dirt that was crumbling from Imoen's spellcraft- the dirt turned to dust easily beneath his blades as his arms swung like windmills, slicing and cutting, sweeping the elemental's body away until he had carved a veritable cavern out of Ogremoch's chest- the groan of the beast tipped him off to another attack, but it was too late to dodge. Rocks began bursting from within Ogremoch's form like a hail of bullets, peppering the bard at close quarters and sending him stumbling backwards as stone after stone struck him- a particularly large one careened off his head, sending the bard tumbling to the ground with blood streaming from the gash.
No time to stop and get the tiefling clear- not if they were to keep pressing the attack. Sarevok roared again, lowering his shoulder and pushing for the cavernous gash in Ogremoch's body, letting the rocks bounce from his dragon scale armor, raising an arm to protect his head as he struggled further inwards, reaching the core of Ogremoch's bulk, already beginning to reform- he ducked low, grasping the Chaos Blade with both hands in the moments before Ogremoch could compensate, then tore upwards with the weapon, gouging out another massive chunk of sod. He reared back again, channeling the powers he'd learned as a Deathbringer- the blow he would land here was enough to fell any normal man in an instant, of that he was certain. Enough for an elemental prince… that would be debatable. A glowing yellow light burned through Ogremoch's body as Sarevok cut the beast from top to bottom, and for a brief moment, all was silent.
Imoen staggered to her feet, Solaufein pulling her up as they edged forward, watching the two mangled halves of Ogremoch sway for brief moments, unsteady on what passed for feet- they both tumbled, collapsing and disintegrating into mud, sliding across the rocky ground. Sarevok smiled in triumph, turning to the others, watching them with more than a little pride as Imoen and Solaufein helped Haer'Dalis to his feet. "And yet another falls to my blade… once again I question the unfairness of letting the power of Bhaal fall to one of you instead of me-"
Sarevok's words were cut off as another tendril of earth erupted from beneath him, sending him into the wall with a clatter of armor as the big man tried and failed to regain his footing from his hands and knees. Imoen and Solaufein's mouths both went agape as the mud that had composed the remains of Ogremoch began reforming, sweeping together and swirling into the gargantuan humanoid form it had taken before, bright glowing eyes visible behind a newly formed shell of marble that covered the earth prince's form. "To struggle against me is to struggle against the earth itself. SUBMIT!"
Haer'Dalis' eyes fluttered open as he pushed off of the shoulders of Imoen and Solaufein, glancing upward at the maw of their foe- despite the danger, the bard could not resist smiling. Battling not only the few remaining Bhaalspawn in Faerun, but the Elemental Prince of Earth as well- he'd have quite the tale to tell in taverns all across this plane and beyond… assuming they survived, of course.
"Well then. I don't suppose there's any way around this, is there?" Greywulf sighed, resting on his quarterstaff as he gazed at the grinning Chromatic Demon that sat ensnared before the group, flames rippling across the red fur on its back.
"There is not, little fleshling… and if you wish to proceed further into this prison of the gods, you will set me free to wander the planes once more… how I find that fact so delightful when held up aside the putrid self-righteousness of the Helmites." The demon sneered, acidic spittle sizzling on the marble floors of the second level of Watcher's Keep- not that it damaged the magically sustained prison. If the demon's spit could have truly eaten through the floor, Greywulf had no doubt that there would be a hole leading all the way to the bottom of the Keep and some distance into the earth itself.
"Hold your tongue, beast, or I shall hold it for you once you are free of your bonds." Anomen commanded, leveling the jagged mace of ice he had acquired at the creature. Specks of frost and a small billow of snow seemed to be in constant flux around the head of the weapon- even putting a limb too near seemed to rob the offender of feeling. Then again, it was in fact a physical manifestation of several dozen ice spirits, so perhaps that was to be expected. Upon shutting down the defense of the other four laboratories, they'd found similar soul gems that had also transformed themselves into much more useful forms, so to speak. Perhaps they were attuned to those who took hold of the gems, knowing just how best the wielder would use it. Regardless, Nalia carried a bow which generated an arrow of pure flame every time she pulled the string back, Reynald wielded a long sword that dripped with acidic poison and smelled faintly of burning metal, while Greywulf's quarterstaff vibrated underneath his fingertips, a small breeze always flowing in and around the weapon, as though it would fly into the heavens upon a whirlwind were there not someone holding it to the ground.
"Would you, now? Hahahaha- not a very noble way to treat your ally, is it?" the demon cackled, shrugging and shaking its body upon the spear that kept it impaled to the wall- with each new strain the spear seemed to plunge deeper, drawing another spurt of blood from the demon's chest. "Erghhh… how I will enjoy being rid of this accursed place. This spear in particular- but why do you hesitate now? Use the spirits of this place that you have gathered and let us all receive what we desire!"
Anomen glanced at the others- each one nodded, even if there was deep reservation in each of their faces. The four of them moved to encircle the beast- not that there was any particular instruction manual that had presented itself, but such magics were usually simple enough to decipher. All four of them presented the weapons they'd gathered, and with a sound like rushing wind, thunder leapt from the chains holding the demon in place, brushing the elemental spirits that were kept in bondage, creating a feedback loop that shattered the magic holding the demon in place. It screamed as the magic bindings fell apart- the demon grabbed the spear that pinned it to the wall and ripped it from its own chest and the wall, hurling it to the ground with a clatter of metal. The creature hunched over with one red claw covering it's bloody wound from the spear, coughing up huge gouts of blood as the magic suspending it to life faded as well.
"Freedom at- *cough*- last! It has been far too long since I have tasted such a feeling! What to do… what to do." The demon straightened up, the hole in its chest rapidly closing with unholy magic.
Greywulf leaned to Reynald and whispered quietly, "Five gold on him saying 'I think I'll kill you all now'."
The former knight smirked as blue fire began erupting around the Chromatic Demon, it stamping a cloven hoof down and letting lightning blaze in its claws. "I think I'll start by slaughtering all of you little fools!"
"You are far too predictable, beast." Nalia laughed with superiority, pointing at the creature and summoning a Scorcher spell, tearing black marks across its body until it let flames wash over the parts she was attempting to burn. "A pity you were so inattentive when we were out of the room. Perhaps you might have sensed invisible footsteps preparing for your inevitable betrayal."
"She's right…" Greywulf shrugged, dropping to one knee as he triggered a Cone of Cold in his hands, letting the fierce sub-zero ice wash over the demon as it recoiled, slowly forming a protective shard of ice over that section of his body.
Anomen didn't bother to taunt or threaten the beast- his actions would speak far louder than words. He raised his gauntleted hands high, calling on the powers of Helm and Torm to bring a Holy Smite down on the demon's head- it was unable to counter the divine energy with chromatic properties and shrieked with the barrage of energy, but it was not enough to keep it down… not until the traps they'd set beneath where the demon had landed went off. Twin explosions tore chunks out of the demon's calves and hooves, reducing the beast's hamstrings and tendons to mush. Nalia smiled at her handiwork- it had been some time since she'd worked on placing traps, but the skills were still there. Perhaps they were not as effective as a truly dedicated thief's might have been; then again, few thieves would be able to set the trap triggers to ignite fireballs, either.
The demon howled, trying to stand- it spat acid from its lips in attempt to shower his attackers with burning death, but Reynald had run straight for the demon, his tower shield firmly planted in front of him to take the bulk of the nasty liquid. He ignored the sizzling sound, threw the shield to the side and swung with all his might- Reynald felt a sudden obstruction as the sword's acidic edge hit the demon's spinal cord, then a slight push forward as the edge ate through bone and flesh and muscle- the blade finally swung free, letting the demon's head roll across the floor as the rest of the body slumped to the ground.
"Hmm... would that the rest of our foes be so easy to predict." Anomen lowered his hands, crouching by the body of the demon as if to make sure it were not going to rise again, a headless horror. "I admit, I had my doubts as to whether or not the plan would work, but it proved supremely effective, m'lady."
"Of course it did." Nalia laughed with self-satisfaction, folding her arms and drawing her emerald colored robes around her. "I am glad we were able to outsmart an immobile demon with all the preparation time we needed. If we could not, we may as well have given up before we even begun."
"That seems rather harsh." Greywulf remarked, passing by Reynald with an outstretched palm. Reynald looked at Greywulf and chuckled, shaking his head. "I think not, my sorcerer friend- I never agreed to that bet, and for good reason."
Greywulf shook his head with a laugh, then focused on the item he'd truly been interested in- the spear that had been pinning the demon to the wall was lying across the circular forum, gleaming with the energy that still lay dormant within. The handle looked like solid burnished brass, though the weight would say otherwise. He picked it up, feeling the heft of it, then examined the tip, a barbed shard of obsidian that gleamed with magic. Runes lined the handle- he traced them with his fingertip, murmuring the inscription- "The Impaler… a more fitting description I've not seen in some time, I think. Perhaps a wedding present for Jaheira…"
"Haha… only you would think that to be an appropriate courtship gift." Anomen chuckled, slapping Greywulf's back as he straightened up, asking for Greywulf to hand him the spear. "Until we reunite with yon lady, perhaps Reynald might carry it- he alone might have the skill necessary to use it between the four of us."
Reynald nodded, running his hand along the shaft of the spear in appreciation before sheathing his own long sword and grasping the Impaler tightly. "I shall make full use of it whilst it is freely lent. My thanks."
"If that is settled, than perhaps we might continue?" Nalia gestured toward the wall that the demon had been suspended upon- four bright glowing runes were planted on the wall, symbols of the four elements of the world. Together they blurred into a starry portal that emptied into what looked like the void itself- never mind the fact that a low-pitched hum rattled the base of their skulls while they stood before it.
"It is, in fact, what we were hoping to find, although I find myself hesitant to simply walk through a portal to the unknown." Anomen sighed, wiping sweat and grime from his face once more before taking hold of his mace. "No sense in wasting time. Let us gather ourselves and venture forth."
Greywulf glanced bemusedly at the squire as the four of them walked with only the slightest hint of trepidation through the planar gateway, slipping through another vortex of magic and into another mess entirely. The world rippled as though they'd stepped through a gigantic pool of water- Greywulf blinked once, twice, before his eyes widened at the sight of a massive ball of flame bearing down on them. He barely had time to shout a warning as he threw a globe of magic up- barely formed, it stood no chance of remaining solid under the abrupt magic assault. It shattered almost instantly and all four members of the group found themselves flung across the… room? No… more of a battlefield. It may have been a stone arena, for all the pillars and hewn bodies lying about- large demonic figures stomped throughout the area, engaged in mortal combat with one another. Baatezu and Tanar'ri, devils and demons at war… and they appeared to be caught in the middle of it.
"Anomen," Greywulf coughed as he tried to raise himself up on one elbow, glaring heavily at the squire. "I may have said this before, but I'd like to reiterate… if we survive this, I'm never letting you lead the party again."
If the squire had a rejoinder to give or some kind of comment on the matter, it was lost in the deafening roar of unholy battle. Thick dust choked the air that they tried to breathe, although the stink of demon flesh made it hardly pleasant to inhale in the first place. Concrete and stone formed the full prison around them, though instead of the smooth, nearly pristine walls they'd seen in the prior levels of the Keep, these were scarred, filled with notches and divots and the signs of this war they saw taking place before them. For every combatant they saw, there was another couple that lay upon the ground, their bodies rotting away underfoot. Nothing would survive here for long- especially not them. Before any of the four could say anything else, the sound of incantations filled the air, and a misty haze began forming overhead- Greywulf's eyes widened as he saw the shape it was taking- the head of a dragon was floating above them, eyes made of blue flame as the jaws opened wide…
"Dragon's Breath!" Greywulf screamed, hoping the shout would be enough to spur his companions to run- the ball of magical flame exploded where they'd been moments ago, the shockwave enough to send Greywulf tumbling across the ground with his ears ringing and his entire back singed from the intense heat. He eventually stopped rolling, face down on the floor but alive.
Greywulf spat noxious dust from his mouth, trying to avoid the taste of demon's blood and dust that was infiltrating his senses whether he liked it or not- before him, one of the devils wielding a flaming sword lunged forward, impaling a massive glabrezu upon it, the hairy beast emitting a howl that caused the half-elf's whole body to chill. Still, there was little time to try and block out the horrific audio, or even cover his ears- the stricken demon was faltering under his assailant's blow, and was nearly upon Greywulf, about to teeter over and land atop the sorcerer. Greywulf flung his body to the side, rolling out of the way as the creature smashed down upon the concrete floor, black blood gurgling from its mouth as the pit fiend who had struck it pulled his sword out, then brought it down a second, third, even fourth time, hewing the body to pieces.
The sorcerer scrambled to his feet, momentarily at panic mode, an entire battlefield they'd been unprepared for laid out in front of them- no. No time to be panicked, no time to look or assess. Situational awareness would have to serve him… all of them, for now. The first step would be reuniting- the second would be getting out of there. If there even was an exit- the rules of this place seemed to change as they went along… Greywulf glanced to his left, then his right, then started to move. It didn't matter so much where he moved as much as he was just moving- and hopefully less at risk from the demonic conflict than he'd been mere seconds ago. Across what seemed an infinite span of devil and demon combatants, there was a glimmering obelisk, with a sheen so bright it couldn't help but draw his attention. Perhaps that was what the planar creatures were fighting over? An exit? Or perhaps simply decoration in this house of madness… either way, it was likely that the others would spot it as well- or at least he hoped they would. Watcher's Keep was not just any prison- the lower they descended, the closer it seemed they were coming to the abyss itself. Undead spirits, a trapped demon, now a full layer of devils. What kind of creature lurked at the bottom of this pit they had fallen into?
Damn. Damn this city, damn the monks protecting it, and damn himself for being caught in this madness. The swashbuckler cringed at the sound of another dragon roar, followed by the inevitable burst of electricity that Abazigal was belching down upon the cityscape. Was it better than a red dragon's fire, consuming the mud-brick huts and the thatch roofs that encircled the outskirts of Amkethran? Perhaps. A quick burst of energy as opposed to the melting heat of flame. Did it really matter? Death was death, no matter the method by which it came- and pushing death off was something he'd gotten very, very good at over the years.
Another burst of lightning struck the ground by where he was hiding, leaving smoking glass instead of sand where the bolt had struck. The man peered out at the impact crater, glancing upwards with hesitation as the shapes flying overhead briefly obscured the bright desert sun, before continuing on with their swath of destruction. Good enough- he bolted from his cover, lithe and nimble footfalls sweeping through Amkethran's streets as he leapt over smoldering rubble that used to be roofs, ignoring the pleas of help from the civilians of this wretched place- too many for him to stop and aid, even if he was the sort to feel urged to do so.
Another roar echoed rattled his teeth- this one was much closer, but not nearly as loud as the enormous dragons that had flown overhead- he swallowed his fear, and took a brief moment to glance behind him as he ran- a dozen paces back was a chromatic drake, currently a sizzling red sheen upon its scales, smoke curling up out of its nostrils as it dove from the sky, aiming to snatch him up in its talons. He immediately went into a forward roll, letting the drake's talons sweep by over top of him while he came up, drawing a long rapier from his belt and watching the drake growl with frustration, looping upwards to come back around for another go at catching its prey.
He did not have time for this- there was, in fact, only one real way out of this place, and fighting his way through an army of drakes and dragons was not it. Not that he couldn't handle himself… it was just he preferred not to. Battles avoided were just as good as battles won, after all. Or at least, he liked to think so. It certainly made things less messy that way- the drake came down upon him, only to be sidestepped at the last second as his rapier pierced the wing membrane of the creature before slashing downward, cutting the wing across the center, effectively grounding the beast permanently. It howled in pain, scales fluttering several colors before remaining red, the creature scattering across the narrow side alley of the city they were nestled in, perching up on both legs as it prepared to breathe its fire- the man recognized a battle he could not win and immediately turned and bolted, feeling heat rush behind him, narrowly avoiding it as he turned a corner, stopping just briefly to sheathe his blade and wipe sweat from his brow. The sounds of screaming caught his ears for just a moment, and he peered back around the corner to see the houses on either side of the alley alight, the drake now interested in poking through them and finding the morsels hidden within, those who had hoped their thin walls and meager homes would protect them from the creatures invading their city. It snapped once, twice, clawing at the remaining pieces of wall that were keeping it from entering the house fully- a terrified woman holding her children close was screaming at the sight of the beast, their lives forfeit the moment the creature could fully fit into her home.
Again, the thought of intervening, of helping crossed his mind- no. He hadn't survived this long by taking foolish risks, playing the hero. That wasn't his style at all. His style was to get in, get out, and be gone before anyone knew what the hell had happened- he turned away, preparing to keep running, but the sound of a shout echoing through the air caught his attention and not, perhaps, in a good way. He spun around and looked in equal parts amazement and horror at the sight before him- a seven foot tall berserker ranger was standing on the back of the drake, pulling it's long sinewy neck back with his raw muscular power, trying to keep it from loosing its fire upon those around, while a bare-chested druid was turning the flames of the house into little more than embers through druidic magic. An elven cleric was healing the injuries of the family whose home had been invaded, and another druid of chestnut colored hair and a tongue as sharp as anyone he could remember sank a dagger deep into the drake's chest again and again, killing the beast slowly but surely.
These were men and women who could actually stand a chance at stopping the sacking of Amkethran. Warriors, druids, mages who might put an end to the death and destruction that rolled all around them. Heroes in the truest sense of the word, through and through. And if they got a good look at him, they'd have his head on a pike before he could say, "You're not still sore about Brynnlaw and the Githyanki, are you?"
No, it would probably not be wise to let these mercenaries get a good look at one Saemon Havarian- no longer the captain of a ship, but still just as wise when it came to avoiding a bad situation. Or at least, making the best of a bad situation. Like moving far away from Amn with the fortune he'd made helping Irenicus, and starting his own little organization out in the middle of nowhere- a nowhere called Amkethran. A place this far removed still desired certain items and amenities… things that a smuggler such as he could provide for a price. Easy, profitable, and safe. Until a war between the thrice-damned Bhaalspawn put him in mortal danger every second he was around these god-children. Which when thinking about it, wasn't all that new- hanging around Greywulf and Imoen and Irenicus hadn't exactly been conducive to healthy living either. When he got out, there would need to be some serious thought put into finding his next port of call- somewhere without this kind of trouble and bustle. Like Neverwinter, perhaps.
Getting out of this first, that would be the trick. Why were they even here? At least, he assumed they were all there- even if he'd only seen four of them. And he didn't recognize the male druid… but it hardly mattered. The Bhaalspawn were at war, and he had no intention of getting caught in the middle. Saemon slipped back around the corner again, preparing to continue his escape- the caverns embedded into the mountain wall where he'd made his smuggler's headquarters were still several streets away, but he knew the shortest routes to take, the pathways of this city like nobody's business- it would take him only another few minutes to navigate. And with the sound of a 'chock' whizzing through the air, those minutes vanished. Far above him, one of the ballista's mounted upon roofs of the city fired, launching a massive bolt through the air, striking Draconis' left wing, sending the beast hurtling from his lofty flight and down towards the ground, crushing rubble and annihilating an entire block of the city- which happened to be the area Saemon was about to run through.
The swashbuckler cursed as he raised a hand to deflect the billows of dust and sand that issued from the crushed buildings, the dragon writhing atop the rubble as it struggled to right itself and remove the wooden ballista bolt that was impaling its wing. Still, it didn't appear that the dragon had noticed him yet- if he was quick, he could double back and get to his caverns by a separate route- he turned to run and suddenly found himself face to face with Jaheira, Aerie, Minsc and Cernd- apparently they'd heard the sound of the dragon's descent and had come to investigate. Saemon's breath caught for a moment and he prayed to all the gods in the world that these men and women wouldn't recognize him without his sailor's clothing and pirate's hat… Jaheira's green eyes flashed and even though his ears were ringing from the explosion of brick and mortar where Draconis had landed, he could read her lips all too well. "YOU!"
Saemon smiled, running his options through his head as quickly as he could, hoping that the shock of seeing him again would allow him a quick word or two- words which would most certainly bring him to the top of their kill list once more, but might just give him the time he needed to get out of this hellish place. Saemon turned around, ran before the dragon slowly rising from the rubble, then shouted aloud, "My lord- er… oh winged great one! You seek Bhaalspawn to slay- I bring before you these four, servants of Gorion's wards! A tribute to spare my life in this time of trouble, oh…ah… oh, reptilian king."
Draconis' eyes flared- much as he was certain the eyes of Minsc, Jaheira and the others did, were he willing to turn around and look at them again- this made the third time he'd betrayed them, or was it the fourth? Perhaps it'd be better not to dwell on it. Saemon dove to the side as Draconis lunged off the pile of rubble toward the four of them, scattering the adventurers immediately. He barely heard what he thought was Jaheira in the distance shouting a stream of profanity at him- he felt only the slightest hint of guilt as he left the battle far behind, climbing over the rubble and continuing onward toward the caverns that composed his hideaway within the city. Yes… safety had a certain way of numbing the guilt that might eat at a man for trading others' lives for his own.
Coming to a small house- more of a shack, really- built right on the side of the rocky mountain that the entire city rested beside, he pulled on the wooden door and let it swing open, letting dust-filtered light stream in as he veritably ran inside, taking in the meager surroundings, a small cot covered in one ratty old blanket with no pillow, a three legged table with so many knots in the wood that it was impossible to write on without smearing the penmanship all to hell, and a small fire pit that had a few old pieces of blackened wood inside it. Nothing more than a pauper's dwelling- or at least, it would appear so to anyone but one of his own trained men or himself. A thin, patchwork blanket also hung on the wall, the only piece of furnishing that was unnecessary.
Saemon grasped the edge of the blanket and tore it off, revealing a small rocky corridor that had been dug into the mountain via magic several months back- one of several secret entrances he'd built to access the massive cavern they'd found inside the mountain itself- it led to an underground river and lake that came up in an oasis on the far side of desert to the east. There was no way for the dragons to reach his men there- he'd be safe for the duration while his men and he packed up everything they could get and get the hell out of the city. He grinned as he finally broke out of the dark passageway, into the open cavern- and immediately cursed- several dozen monks were standing around the crates of smuggled goods he'd brought in, and the bodies of his men were lying on the rocky floor as blood pooled around them. Mercenaries hired by Balthazar flanked him the moment he entered the room- leaving the way he'd arrived would not be an option, their swords unsheathed and at his back.
"Such a waste. I gave them the option to surrender, but it seems your men were more loyal to you than their own lives." A man's voice, tinged with what might possibly have been genuine regret echoed through the large chamber, and Saemon glanced to his right, seeing Balthazar himself kneeling by a pair of dead men- it looked from distance as though their throats had caved in, and from the blood smeared across the monk's knuckles, it was fairly easy to hazard a guess as to what had happened.
"They… ah, were more likely interested in the gold we'd scavenged, I reckon." Saemon swallowed, trying to sound as cheery and cocky as he could manage- wouldn't do to go out with a whimper. "Got quite the haul in our time here… I'd try to barter my life with it, but seeing as you already… ah, have found my little hiding spot, I gather it wouldn't do me much good."
"More the fools then, if true." Balthazar murmured, turning to look at the pirate-turned-smuggler, his brown eyes flashing with danger. "And I have no interest in your stolen goods. I require the use of this place- it will be the staging ground for our defense against the forces of Abazigal. I gave your men the opportunity to hand over control of this place and leave peacefully… they refused."
"Ah. Well… is it safe to say that I shall be offered the same bargain? I don't suppose I might take a few of those trinkets I've stashed away here with me as I depart, will I?" Saemon grinned, feeling his odds of survival increase- perhaps he might just get out of Amkethran alive after all-
"No." Balthazar intoned coldly. "You, Saemon Havarian- do not look so surprised, as if I did not know who you were. I have known of you since you entered my town. Your presence was tolerated only so much in that you kept the other lawless types in line. But again I say… you will not be leaving. Your loyalties have proven far too fickle in the past- I do not doubt that a taste of the dragon's horde would be more than enough for you to sell my men and I to the beasts outside. I shall not risk it. Your men would have lived, were they smart… you, I fear, shall not be so lucky."
Saemon swore, trying desperately to think of something, anything to save himself- a thought flickered in his mind, and he nearly laughed aloud at it, but it was really just too perfect. "Now hold on there… I know you've got lots of planning to do, what with needing to kill your kin and all…" the swashbuckler smirked at the just noticeable look of surprise on Balthazar's face. "You're not the only one who can make a few deductions, I think. But I do know why you and the dragon are fighting- it's the war to end them all, isn't it? The big one that all them prophets went on and on about… and I know that when you and the dragons finish each other off, you'll be looking for a few more Bhaalspawn to lay waste to. Well, it just so happens that I can help with that… I know a couple of them- Greywulf and Imoen? You let me live… and maybe let me take some of my goods out of here with me… and I might be able to help you get your hands on them."
Balthazar remained silent, and while Saemon awaited his answer, all he could think was… That'll be the fourth betrayal… or the fifth. Damn, those sods are unlucky.